Goin' Back to Cali

Importing and exporting the same food items? Who says economics has to be rational?

One feature of the global food economy is the simultaneous, often superfluous, import and export of the same items, a phenomenon known as “redundant trade.” Take California, the nation’s biggest produce grower: At the height of its cherry season, it sends cherries to Canada and Japan even as it ships them in from Chile, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe. The Golden State also exports and imports nearly identical amounts of lettuce and almonds, a practice that food policy analyst Katy Mamen says defies the basics of supply and demand: “Presumably, as a California grower you could get more money in this market, not to mention the costs you would save on shipping. It boggles my mind.” Or, as economist Herman Daly once quipped about this oddity of free trade, “Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.”

In 2004, the U.S. exported nearly $20 million worth of lettuce—over 3/4 of it grown in California—to Mexico. The same year, it imported $20 million worth of Mexican lettuce.

While California-grown brussels sprouts head north to Canada, the state imports them from Belgium and Mexico.

  • Half of California’s processed tomato exports go to Canada, which ships $36 million worth of processed tomatoes to the U.S. annually.

  • In 2003, New York shipped $1.1 million worth of California almonds to Italy, while importing $1.1 million worth of almonds from Italy.

  • California sells $18 million worth of asparagus abroad. $39 million worth of asparagus comes into the state from other countries.

  • International strawberry imports to California peak during the state’s strawberry season.

  • 20% of California’s table grapes go to China, the world’s largest producer of table grapes.

Sources: Agricultural Marketing Research Center, International Society for Ecology and Culture, USDA.